Photo credit: Erika Dickstein
Brooklyn born and raised, Latasha Alcindor (A.K.A. LA) is a multimedia performance artist who happens to be a rapper, although she could have been many other things. From the combination of poetic influences in her formative years, and the freedom to study hip hop in college, LA grew into a music artist. However, all of her live pieces are accompanied by performance art, and you can clearly see her artistic expressions through these outlets.
I first heard of LA through Manifesto, a non-for-profit artistic movement founded in Toronto that focuses primarily on supporting hip hop artists. LA is Manifesto family (even though she’s from New York) but I hadn’t seen her live until a few months’ ago when she performed her then forthcoming album, Teen Nite At Empire, at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. I was immediately impressed with LA’s attitude, her story and the polish of this highly choreographed show – something I try not to take for granted. The room was all love, with everyone there to support LA on the precipice of her project launch. And a week later, Teen Nite was out.
I probably played the album three times on the release date, constantly changing my favorite track on every listen, rewinding to hear verses and beats over and over again. Teen Nite At Empire is a personal remembering of LA’s teenage years, going to the underage roller skate night at Empire (now closed). This chronological account of the many Friday’s she and her friends spent there, culminates in a relatable narrative all the while permeating messages of female strength, teen emotions and struggles. The end of the album gets darker, describing the gun violence that inevitably shaded those otherwise innocent nights, and brings the listener back to reality.
With the album now out for a little while, I had the charming opportunity to catch up with LA on how the response has been, what Teen Nite was like to create compared with her previous project B(LA)K, and what lies ahead now that she’s ‘re-birthed’ after a period of darkness.
Photo credit: Erika Dickstein
UHH: So Teen Nite at Empire came out about a month ago now…how's it been since then?
LA: It's been a roller coaster! Some days are really up and absurd, and busy and crazy, some days it's like, ‘err is anyone hearing my project?!' But overall, the reception has been so amazing, and this is kind of a rebirth stage for me. This year has been a rebirth of who I am and my art, so it's really dope to see it do what I wanted it to do. That's the whole challenge of being an artist, it’s always the anxiety of feeling like your art isn't doing what you want it to do, and all of a sudden you get a message like, 'you're going to Detroit!' I'm getting used to the wave, I'm starting to understand its ebbs and flows.
Did you have any specific expectations for this project?
I had intentions, I didn't have expectations. I'm really big on manifesting, so I had intentions I wanted to set on the project that were definite. I definitely wanted to grow my fan base, and I definitely wanted to speak a message of women of color in Brooklyn.
You describe yourself as an artist in the holistic sense of the word, but how did you land in music specifically?
I was into performance art for a long time, honestly I have no fucking clue how I got here. Before college I had a boyfriend who passed away when I was 16. He wanted to be a rapper and he was into poetry, so around that time I started playing around with poetry but not really sitting in it. I was always writing in journals, and he said I should write more poetry. Then he passed away, he got shot actually. So after high school I went to Wesleyan University, and at Wesleyan I didn't know what the fuck I was going to do, because I thought I was going to go for psych but I hated statistics. Luckily, Wesleyan is this really liberal arts school, so I got to choose any major I wanted, and I went into African-American studies but I focused on performance art, and the psychology of Black artists. Specifically, my concentration was hip hop, so I did exactly what I wanted to do. I did a senior thesis with hip hop, I guess I was rapping kind of. It was a performance art piece where I told a hip hop story through poetry, dance and storytelling. It was a big play, I thought I was going to leave school and go to Broadway, but then I got out of school and got a job.
So I was working, started writing poetry and circulating it in the poetry scene in New York City, and people were hearing it, did the cypher scene and it went super viral. Everyone was like, 'yo you're a rapper, you don't even know it'. I did a mixtape just for the fucks, and it ended up going viral, ended up opening up for Kanye West and Q Tip, Big Sean, super early in the game having no clue what was going on. I did that, and then I kind of lost my way.
During that time, Nicki Minaj was the only female rapper out, so everyone was like, 'you got to come harder, you got to be like Nicki, you got to be sexy'. I was kind of over, overweight back then so people were judging me and I was getting internet bullied. I got into a severe depression around 2012/2013 where I wanted to commit suicide. Hip hop was kind of taking a hold on me, so I decided it wasn't for me. But I started writing again little by little when I was living with an ex-boyfriend of mine in Jersey. He took my songs and started releasing some without my approval. He helped me out, and one of my songs ended up on Noisey Vice, and then this woman heard it, and was like, 'why aren't you making music?' She literally saved my life. I was working again, I was living with my mom and we were going through a lot of issues with me still wanting to be making music. This woman gave me $10,000 dollars to dip from where I was living and restart my life.
So now I live in Bed-Stuy, I'm making music again, and I live with a bunch of musicians - I kind of re-birthed in 2015/16. I made a resurgence within myself, I knew what I wanted to do, and I saw the layout of everything. I had this whole concept called ‘L.A. Lytes’, I don't know what it's going to become, but I know that every year I have conceptual projects that have a performance art piece next to it. This year was dedicated to Brooklyn, and growing up in my environment and my mind, and how it interacts with my environment. So that's why my last album was called B(LA)K, which means LA and BK, and this project is Teen Nite at Empire, which is the memory of growing up in Brooklyn. Then I have one more project that's coming out in August, which is the completion project of this year. It's actually for a tour that I'm trying to plan called All A Dream, which is a huge production where I'm doing performance art with the music, like I've been doing.
That sounds amazing! We’ll absolutely be there.
Thank you! This year is Brooklyn, next year is womanhood, and then the year after that is going to be my spirit, trying to tap into my ancestors and go to the countries that my ancestors were in.
You referenced Nicki being the only big female rapper when you were starting, but I've read that you're influenced a lot by Lil' Kim, Eve, TLC...who else inspired you?
I grew up on everyone. My mom is Puerto Rican and Haitian, my step-dad is Panamanian, and my biological father is Jamaican, so I grew up in this culture-fuck bubble of reggae, salsa and merengue. I was the little kid in the corner with my headphones listening to Biggie. Who influenced my hip hop world? I would say Missy Elliot, Eve, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Remy Ma, anybody who was in New York during that 90s era was huge on me, like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Monie Love, all these women. But I was really huge on Bad Boy, so Lil Kim was like my mom in my head, I was always listening to her ratchet music in my ears. Ruff Ryders were big, Jay Z, so I was growing up in those circles of understanding music. M.I.A. came later who’s my mom in my head as well. Lady Saw from the reggae seen, Patra, Shabba. Then it got all weird, I started listening to Little Dragon, and it made me into this experimental artist who plays with whoever I want to.
And who is inspiring you now?
I love Kendrick, he's like my counterpart in my mind, I'm like, 'I'm coming for you'. J Cole, SZA, Solange of course is like mom, Beyoncé, always mom. I listen to a lot of cats from New York too like Radamiz who is amazing, Remy Banks, Loaf Muzik and then cats from Toronto. I've been listening to my home girl Witch Profit who is really sick, part of this crew called Above Top Secret, Tory Lanez, Drake, all the obvious people...oh and Anderson .Paak!
Photo credit: Erika Dickstein
You've been doing this for over five years now. Personally you've been through many changes but as an artist, how would you compare yourself now to the beginning of your career?
I feel so much more free now. I still have things I am tied to that I'm trying to let go of, but I feel a lot more freedom in my speech and my presentation. I feel like I can be whoever I want to be now, and that's what I do for the most part. Back in the day, I felt a lot of closure and like I had to fill in some sort of lane. I just don't give as many fucks anymore! Hip hop is a hard industry to be a part of. You lose friends, you lose people you thought were your homies and now I'm just a point where if you're not for me, then I just can't be for you. A New Yorker already has tough skin but now I have an extra skin on top of it, which makes me thugged out a little bit, but I'm still really sweet at heart!
Do you feel like the industry has changed for women in how they portray themselves? For instance, Nicki isn’t the only female rapper doing big things these days, and they’re not all like her either.
If I want to go sexy then I can do that too, because it's all feminism. I want to promote that for women, you don't have to be in one thing. One day I'll want to look fly and all dressed up, and the next day I'll want to wear sweats, and I will do all of those things. I think when people see me they're like, 'you look so different today', and I'm like, I know because I don't like to look the same.
That's so true! You have a chameleon look. You want to create your own brand which is more than the music.
I think I promote this, 'I'm every woman' kind of vibe which i really want to push, RIP Whitney, but that's exactly what I want to show girls. Sometimes I'm going to wear pink hair just because!
Aside from the generous support from the woman you mentioned, who else has been especially influential in getting you where you are?
It's really the homies that have been that way. Another female rapper, Sammus, who's been my ride or die, she's helped me a lot. She actually got me my first gig at SXSW, she really believes in womanhood and hip hop, and has been so supportive. My team I Stay Gold have been really supportive. They're always cursing me out because I hate recording in studios. I record all my albums in my room, with just a mattress, a little foam thing, and a tiny baby mic that I put on my computer, and I just rap through that. Then these huge conglomerates like National Sawdust is big, Manifesto has supported me too, and then just real people. I got a shout out from Wyclef which was cool, then just regular day people have been my biggest support, girls especially hitting me up sending me full messages like, 'this album means so much to me, thank you for speaking for us', that's what keeps me going. I haven't had any huge cosigns yet, let's pray I do soon, but I'm very grateful for what I do have.
Photo credit: Erika Dickstein
I really like your Instagram, it’s very well curated and consistently communicates who you are. What's your view on how much social media actually impacts success, versus just being noise? And how has it helped you?
Social media is cool - this week I’m on a detox though! I feel like it's how I've gotten to where I am because people have seen my music online the most, seen me speak about things and that's how people are like, 'you're dope, I just listened to your music and this is fire'. It's definitely helped a lot for me, it's always cluttered my brain but when you learn how to balance it out, it's the best thing because you know how to work the system. My Instagram layout is so important to me, that's my only thing because it's like Tetris, it's like a game.
What is one of the best single pieces of artistic advice that you've been given?
I've gotten a lot of that, but I think recently the best advice I got was from this woman Paula, who runs National Sawdust. We were talking about taking your community with you because I've always been really community oriented, and it’s always has been a weird Catch 22, because if you're not community oriented you lose people, but if you are then people will take over your shit. So Paula just told me, 'you have to do this for yourself first, before anybody else. You can't think about anybody else right now, and when you're creating your art and your music, no matter how many industry labels come to you and tell you you have to make your music like this and that, remember what you needed to do for you, because this is your art and this is your healing'. That really stuck with me. Whenever I feel the anxiety coming back, I go back to that, and that has kept it grounded.
Teen Nite at Empire really is an incredible story. It’s obviously very personal and you’re not leaning to one side of the industry or another just to get heard. I didn't grow up in Brooklyn but I think it's relatable to anyone growing up as a teenager and all the emotions that go with it. How did you decide this story would be the focus of a whole album?
I don't know, we just kind of made it like that. The process of the project was, I took all the Hot 97 mixtapes, and I listened to all the tracks that really resonated with me, I ripped those beats, wrote over them and then I sent it back to my producer and he made completely new beats out of it. Then I took all those songs, and kind of made a story out of memory. It literally took four months to make the project, because it was so thought out. It was easy, and it was mad fun to do. It was a challenge, I would send Kaui and beat and then be like, ‘what you got’? Kaui and Ken I Produced saved my ass on this project. Kaui is a protégé of Timbaland, so he’s like an awesome, smart ass kid. And Ken I Produced is just a maniac, genius engineer. Then I wrote the storyline in between, and my boyfriend actually did all the skits on it! I knew what I wanted from it, so it was dope.
Music should always have an element of storytelling to it but this is a true story front to back. How important is getting a message out vs telling more of a narrative?
I’ve done both, but especially when we do the storytelling for a woman and a woman of color, it’s so important, there’s not a lot of that. There’s only a few women doing that right now and I think it’s an imperative because I’m writing out history and legacy, so I want to continue doing that as many times as I can.
Do you have a favorite track?
I love Hotness and Glo Up.
They’re my favorites too!
Because they’re fun and they want to make you dance!
It does look like you have a lot of fun when you perform Hotness, and your dancers are also your friends. How do you feel when you’re performing it vs recording vs writing it?
It’s all the same in my head, because I kind of visualize how it’s going to be performed. It’s the same in my head, but then when I’m performing it I’m like, ‘I’m going to faint right here’, because I am doing a 40 minute show, and by the time we get to Hotness I’m like, ‘oh my god’. At this point, I don’t even rap the whole song anymore because enough people have heard it that they can sing it back. I just did a huge show in Detroit for the Allied Media Conference, and it was 1000 people. We did Hotness and Glo Up, and 50 people got on stage going crazy! It was perfect, and that’s why those songs mean a lot to me because I can just wile out with the crowd.
Photo credit: Matt O
Glo Up is obviously a very feel good vibe, but it also shows how down to earth you are by saying to girls they can do and be who they want.
Glo Up is my favorite because it’s storytelling, but it connects my teenage years with my now years. I feel like I’m still that awkward girl at the skating rink when we go out to the club. It’s about embracing that and embracing that awkward girl that I am, and glowing up with it. Have you ever seen ‘She’s All That’ the movie?
Yes! We actually did it as a school play when I was 12…
It’s one of my favorite movies and that’s where Glo Up kind of came from, that art school girl growing up.
Has being honest with who you are always been in your music, or is that part of this journey you’ve been on?
I feel like it’s part of the journey. At first I don’t feel I was as honest, I know there’s one song that’s straight up honesty from back in the day called ‘From LA’, and ‘I’m Alive’. But I feel like this project in general is me being completely real about everything that’s going on, and B(LA)K too. And that’s kind of why it’s a rebirth, because I really wanted to hone in on who exactly I am. It’s hard sometimes because you’ve got to be in rhyme in rap but sometimes you just want to say what it is, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now.
The beat on Revoke Thee is just so good. I remember checking my phone to see what track it was – that’s when you know it’s solid.
Yeah Revoke Thee is hard. That was one of the first singles we had on the project, and we had the music video, it’s so hard and so funny. I remember the sample we used for that was Deep Cover, Dr Dre. The project actually has no samples, we just referenced everything. Kaui made everything from scratch and we had reference thoughts. It’s huge on Spotify right now, it’s at like 50,000 plays.
Have you seen a change in your fan base?
Hell yeah, I have a huge Brazilian fan base out of nowhere! It’s really dope, I really want to go to Brazil. London’s been big, and San Fran has been really dope too. I’m so excited, I just want to tour, that’s all I really want to do. If I can just go and tour all year, I would do that. Out of everything, I think seeing the world and meeting new people just fills my heart up.
What’s the best gig outside of New York that you’ve done?
Detroit was really amazing. It was so fucking cool because there’s so much space out there. They take churches and make them art spaces, I was rehearsing in an 1800s church. Then the show was 1000 people plus, and I just had so much fun. Toronto has been really good for me too, that’s big family for me. New Orleans is so much fun, the people love to party there and I love to party so that’s dope.
B(LA)K is totally different to Teen Nite, a lot darker for sure, although there is a similarity to Affirming Life at the end of Teen Nite.
Yes exactly, Affirming Life actually links B(LA)K and Teen Nite together. B(LA)K is about this dark era I was in, it took four years to make it. It's about seeing the transition of Blackness, watching so many people pass away, people get shot, and then seeing the transition of Brooklyn and watching how gentrification has affected so many people I know. Also my personal transformations, going from having a boyfriend who passed away to trying to find myself through that trauma. So that project was really dark intentionally, because I wanted to find my light after. It's not a complete project, because I didn't find the end story but I'm kind of in that place now, and that's the next project that's coming up in August. B(LA)K was really hard to release and to finish, because I had so many things that I wanted to say, and I had so many things I didn't want to say. I was so scared to say certain things, and my mother was scared for me to say certain things, she was like 'you trying to be an activist, you trying to be a revolutionary? These people getting killed.' That is something I wasn't thinking about when I was creating the music, I was just releasing my thoughts. The gun violence in B(LA)K links to the gun violence that happens in Teen Nite at Empire, because it's similar stories, just watching young men kill each other and things of that nature, it's something that I lived through a lot.
There are obviously still gun violence issues in Brooklyn and beyond, but from what you see and hear, do you think anything's moved on?
I think it's covered up better. We're not hearing all the stories any more, and the gun violence is now not gang related as much. Now it's police brutality that's the heavy story, and those all link to each other. There's a reason why all of that is happening, it's all fear. I remember when Philando Castile got shot, I had stopped creating B(LA)K during that time, then I saw that and I was crushed, I remember crying for the whole week. Because of my boyfriend who got shot, I knew what that feeling was like. I went back to B(LA)K because I had to finish this, I had to say something about this trauma that's going on in the Black community, and the fear and how we deal with it. If anything, I hope that the art teaches us how to get out of that and how to live in love, and to live in your truth. I can't even pinpoint it anymore, sometimes I feel so desensitized, I feel like a lot of us are. But I want to feel, so I make the music to feel it and to be real about it.
B(LA)K's also about the gentrification of Brooklyn, which is where you grew up but in all different areas?
Yeah I lived in pretty much all parts of Brooklyn, my father was a drug dealer during that time so we had to move around a lot. It was so much cheaper, gentrification changed the whole game. There's always a good and a bad - I'm out here getting green juices but at the same token, I'm dealing with my aunt fighting to keep her house. I'm very caught in the middle, especially as a millennial, New York is getting so much art out of nowhere and I'm hearing new perspectives. I live with two white girls that I love to death, and before I never lived with white people. Then when I moved into the space, I learned so much. Now I can speak to people freely, I feel judged sometimes but I don't care about the judgement. The problem is the economics of it all, it's not really making solutions for people in poverty, but that's everywhere - I saw it in Detroit, I saw it in New Orleans, I saw it in Florida, everywhere I've gone in America, gentrification is hitting hard.
Looking forward, you have a third project coming out, which is exciting. Any sense you can give us of the vibe - dark, bright?
It's going to be a middle ground I think, it's definitely resolution from B(LA)K. It's going to have some soul, I'm going to be singing in it a little bit, I'm a little nervous about it. Very honest, still having fun of course but definitely dedicated to a soulful New York that I grew up loving, very old Kanye West kind of feel. After that, we're going super left - but I won't tell you where we're going.
It feels like you're really tying up a section of your journey, and making peace with it before doing something completely different.
Exactly. I'm very into astrology and I'm very spiritual. I'm a Capricorn and this year it talks about Saturn's return, and how important that is for Capricorns because that's the ruling planet. I'm going to be out of this crazy space that I've been in for the past four years. What it talks about is the tying up of loose ends for me, so everything is making sense together. In August we have the big show at National Sawdust, All a Dream, and it's a multimedia piece with documentary of my life and dance. It's kind of what I did at college but now grown up, and Manifesto is actually hosting it. So for that project I'm really diving deep, tying these knots as best as I can. All a Dream, I hope that we tour with it, but the concept is that this whole thing is a dream, and our intentions and what we bring out into the world is how we're going to live. I didn't know that for so long, and I lived in a lot of different kinds of traumas, but I'm learning how to let go of that, and understand that was just a dream that I was living in, and now I'm living in a new one.
Catch LA at National Sawdust on August 19th for her multimedia show, All A Dream: https://nationalsawdust.org/event/l-a-lytes-all-a-dream/
Find more of Latasha Alcindor and her music here:
Photo credit: Matt O